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12 Nerdy But Brilliant Cooking Tips From A Food Scientist

From making your produce last longer to cooking perfect pasta.

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For those of you who don't know, Harold McGee is a writer who focuses on the intersection of cooking and science.

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His book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, is a go-to resource for teaching young cooks the fundamentals of cooking through science.

So here are 12 of his most brilliantly nerdy cooking tips (and some busted misconceptions) that'll make you a better cook:

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1. As soon as you drain your boiled veggies, coat them in oil to prevent them from drying out.

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After boiling, your veggies will be hot and steaming — and steam means "they're losing moisture." The best way to fight this (and make sure your veggies don't dry out and get wrinkly) is to coat them in something waterproof like oil or butter to keep "the moisture and goodness" inside the veggies. Check out the whole video here.

2. If you're making a creamy sauce that's made with an acidic ingredient (like wine or lemon juice), use heavy cream instead of milk to prevent it from curdling.

A lot of recipes tell you to add dairy at the last minute to prevent curdling, and even so the sauces still get chunky sometimes — but not all dairy does this! "The exceptions are heavy cream and crème fraîche, which contain so little casein that its curdling simply isn’t noticeable." So feel free to heat your dairy-based sauce to a simmer, just make sure it's made with cream (and not milk).
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A lot of recipes tell you to add dairy at the last minute to prevent curdling, and even so the sauces still get chunky sometimes — but not all dairy does this! "The exceptions are heavy cream and crème fraîche, which contain so little casein that its curdling simply isn’t noticeable." So feel free to heat your dairy-based sauce to a simmer, just make sure it's made with cream (and not milk).

3. To make your fresh berries last longer, dunk them in hot water as soon as you get home...

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Just briefly submerge them in water that's around 125°F — a temperature that's hot enough to kill any mold living on the outside of the berries without damaging them. Check out the whole video here.

4. And to freshen up a steak that's been sitting in your fridge, scrape the outside with a knife and run it under cold water...

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Simply scrape off any "visible discoloration" and debris with a knife, rinse it in tap water, then dry it off with a paper towel. (Note: This is a good way to "refresh" any steaks you have sitting in your fridge, but it won't magically make a spoiled one better — so use your judgement!) Check out the whole video here.

5. And when it's time to cook it, forget about "sealing in the juices" with a hard sear — instead, just don't cook it over 140°F to prevent any moisture loss.

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According to McGee: Turns out searing a steak won't actually "seal in the juices" — a misconception that chefs still believe today. Searing will give you a delicious flavor (thanks, Maillard reaction!), but it won't keep it juicy. The best way to make sure your steak stays moist is to not cook it over 140°F. You can check out his full explanation here.

6. To roast a turkey and actually keep it moist, remove the legs from the breasts and cook them separately (or use ice packs to manipulate their temperatures).

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When roasting a whole turkey, "you're dealing with two very different kinds of muscle." The legs need to be cooked to 160-165°F, and the breast to 150°F* — so it's best to actually cut them into pieces and cook them separately. If you don't want to cut up your bird, McGee suggests letting the bird sit at room temp for a few hours while keeping ice bags on the breasts. This way the breasts are colder when it enters the oven and cook at about the same time as the legs. See exactly how he does it here.

*The FDA suggests cooking turkey to 165°F, so use your judgment when picking the temp you want to cook it to.

7. To cook fish that has a crispy skin, only use thick-cut fillets.

Nothing is better than crispy fish skin, but sometimes the flesh overcooks before the skin gets crispy. McGee's trick is to get a fillet that's thick-enough to withstand the long, hot sear. "So what you want," explains McGee, "is a thick enough piece of fish so you can brown the outside without overcooking the inside because there's a lot of inside to cook through." So ditch the flimsy fillets and get ones that are nice and meaty.
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Nothing is better than crispy fish skin, but sometimes the flesh overcooks before the skin gets crispy. McGee's trick is to get a fillet that's thick-enough to withstand the long, hot sear. "So what you want," explains McGee, "is a thick enough piece of fish so you can brown the outside without overcooking the inside because there's a lot of inside to cook through." So ditch the flimsy fillets and get ones that are nice and meaty.

8. And, if you don't want your house to smell fishy, try adding one of these functional ingredients while cooking it: green tea, onion, bay, sage, clove, ginger, or cinnamon.

One of the worst things about cooking fish at home is the smell — but it turns out that "certain ingredients help reduce the odor [...] by limiting fatty-acid oxidation or preemptively reacting with TMAO." So, without getting too nerdy on you, these ingredients basically prevent the smells from forming and save your house from smelling fishy (even if just a little bit).
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One of the worst things about cooking fish at home is the smell — but it turns out that "certain ingredients help reduce the odor [...] by limiting fatty-acid oxidation or preemptively reacting with TMAO." So, without getting too nerdy on you, these ingredients basically prevent the smells from forming and save your house from smelling fishy (even if just a little bit).

9. Despite what people think, quality wooden cutting boards actually have anti-bacterial compounds that carry bacteria away from the surface of foods, making them just as sanitary as plastic ones.

Many cooks are taught that wooden boards are unsanitary and hold onto bacteria — but, "it turns out that wooden cutting boards are good in a couple of ways," explains McGee. Plastic boards can get banged up and form dents that hold onto bacteria, "and woods often contain anti-bacterial compounds in them so there's kind of a natural antibiotic in the surface of the wood." Moral of the story is: don't be afraid to cut raw meats on wood —just make sure to clean it afterwards.
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Many cooks are taught that wooden boards are unsanitary and hold onto bacteria — but, "it turns out that wooden cutting boards are good in a couple of ways," explains McGee. Plastic boards can get banged up and form dents that hold onto bacteria, "and woods often contain anti-bacterial compounds in them so there's kind of a natural antibiotic in the surface of the wood." Moral of the story is: don't be afraid to cut raw meats on wood —just make sure to clean it afterwards.

10. To soften brown sugar that has dried out, store it with a damp paper towel or slice of apple.

Hard brown sugar is a pain, but you can easily revive a hard clunk of it "by closing it up with a damp towel or piece of apple from which it can absorb moisture."
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Hard brown sugar is a pain, but you can easily revive a hard clunk of it "by closing it up with a damp towel or piece of apple from which it can absorb moisture."

11. Prevent pasta from sticking together by "adding a spoonful or two of oil to the pot and then lifting the noodles through the water surface a few times to lubricate them."

On top of adding oil during cooking, "rinsing the drained noodles, or moistening them with some sauce, cooled cooking water, oil, or butter" after cooking them will prevent them from drying out and sticking to each other as well.
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On top of adding oil during cooking, "rinsing the drained noodles, or moistening them with some sauce, cooled cooking water, oil, or butter" after cooking them will prevent them from drying out and sticking to each other as well.

12. To make peeling hard-boiled eggs easier, add baking soda to the water and let them cool in the fridge so the whites firm up.

McGee suggests adding a half teaspoon of baking soda to a quart of water to make it alkaline, thus making the shells easier to peel off. "It also helps to cook fresh eggs somewhat longer," explains McGee, "to make the white more cohesive, and to allow the white to firm up in the refrigerator before peeling."
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McGee suggests adding a half teaspoon of baking soda to a quart of water to make it alkaline, thus making the shells easier to peel off. "It also helps to cook fresh eggs somewhat longer," explains McGee, "to make the white more cohesive, and to allow the white to firm up in the refrigerator before peeling."

For even more brilliantly nerdy cooking tips, get McGee's book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen on Amazon for $24.32.

What are your favorite Harold McGee cooking tips? Let us know in the comments!

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